WASHINGTON — Federal drug agents regularly mine Americans’ travel information to profile people who might be ferrying money for narcotics traffickers — though they almost never use what they learn to make arrests or build criminal cases.
Instead, that targeting has helped the Drug Enforcement Administration seize a small fortune in cash.
DEA agents have profiled passengers on Amtrak trains and nearly every major U.S. airline, drawing on reports from a network of travel-industry informants that extends from ticket counters to back offices, a USA TODAY investigation has found. Agents assigned to airports and train stations singled out passengers for questioning or searches for reasons as seemingly benign as traveling one-way to California or having paid for a ticket in cash.
The DEA surveillance is separate from the vast and widely-known anti-terrorism apparatus that now surrounds air travel, which is rarely used for routine law enforcement. It has been carried out largely without the airlines’ knowledge.
It is a lucrative endeavor, and one that remains largely unknown outside the drug agency. DEA units assigned to patrol 15 of the nation’s busiest airports seized more than $209 million in cash from at least 5,200 people over the past decade after concluding the money was linked to drug trafficking, according to Justice Department records. Most of the money was passed on to local police departments that lend officers to assist the drug agency.
“They count on this as part of the budget,” said Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster.”
In most cases, records show the agents gave the suspected couriers a receipt for the cash — sometimes totaling $50,000 or more, stuffed into suitcases or socks — and sent them on their way without ever charging them with a crime.
The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans’ domestic travel, or on what scale. But court records and interviews with agents, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not permitted to discuss DEA operations, make clear that it is extensive. In one 2009 court filing, for example, Justice Department lawyers said agents took $44,010 from two people traveling on a train to Denver after picking them out during “a routine review of the computerized travel manifest for Amtrak.”
USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers after agents said they had been tipped off to a suspicious itinerary. Those cases likely represent only a small fraction of the instances in which agents have stopped travelers or seized cash based on their travel patterns, because few such encounters ever make it to court.
Those cases nonetheless offer evidence of the program’s sweep. Filings show agents were able to profile passengers on Amtrak and nearly every major U.S. airline, often without the companies’ consent. “We won’t release that information without a subpoena,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.
By itself, a suspicious itinerary amounts to little more than a tip; it’s not enough evidence to permit agents to detain passengers, search their bags or seize their cash. Instead, agents use it to approach travelers and ask if they would be willing to answer a few questions, a process that often ends with them either asking for permission to search the person’s bags or having a dog sniff them for drugs.
Agents seized $25,000 from Christelle Tillerson’s suitcase in 2014 as she was waiting to board a flight from Detroit to Chicago. The Justice Department said in a court filing that agents became interested in Tillerson after they “received information” that she was headed to Los Angeles on a one-way ticket.
Tillerson told the agents that her boyfriend had withdrawn the money from his U.S. Postal Service retirement account so that she could buy a truck, according to court records. Agents were suspicious; Tillerson was an ex-convict, who had spent time in prison for driving a load of marijuana into the United States from Mexico. She seemed to have little money of her own. And a police dog smelled drugs on the cash.
Agents seized the money, and let Tillerson go. Her lawyer, Cyril Hall, said she was never arrested, or even questioned about whether she could give agents information about traffickers.
A year and a half later — after she produced paperwork showing that much of the money had indeed come from her boyfriend’s retirement fund — the Justice Department agreed to return the money, minus $4,000. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Detroit, Gina Balaya, said prosecutors concluded that “a small percentage of the funds should be forfeited.”
“It was outrageous. It’s still outrageous,” Hall said.
Federal law gives the government broad powers to seize cash and other assets if agents have evidence that they are linked to crime. That process, commonly known as asset forfeiture, has come under fire from lawmakers in recent years after complaints that police were using the law as a way to raise money rather than to protect the public or prevent crime.
“Going after someone’s property has nothing to do with protecting them and it has everything to do with going after the money,” said Renée Flaherty, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, an advocacy group that has battled asset forfeiture cases.
To the DEA, cash seizures are one prong of a broader financial fight against gangs and Mexican cartels, which have reaped huge profits — usually in cash — from selling drugs in the United States. Agents “employ strategies and methods that attack the financial infrastructure of these criminal organizations,” spokesman Russ Baer said, including tracking the couriers they use to transport the money.
Baer said agents receive information from employees at "airlines, bus terminals, car rental agencies, storage facilities, vehicle repair shops, r other businesses." He did not explain why so many suspected couriers are released without charges.
Mining travel records
The DEA came under fire for harvesting travel records two years ago, when Amtrak’s inspector general revealed that agents had paid a secretary $854,460 over nearly two decades in exchange for passenger information. A later investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the secretary initially looked up reservations only at agents’ request, but quickly “began making queries on his own initiative, looking for indicators that a person might be planning to transport illegal drugs or money on a train,” according to a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Five current and former agents said the DEA has cultivated a wide network of such informants, who are taught to be on the lookout for suspicious itineraries and behavior. Some are paid a percentage if their tips lead to a significant seizure. Records filed in asset seizure cases suggest the drug agency’s informant network is broad enough that agents have been able to profile passengers traveling on most major airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and others.
“Basically, it’s what that Amtrak guy was doing, but at the airport,” said a senior DEA agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the agency’s use of confidential informants.
Court records show agents and informants flagged travelers for questioning based on whether they were traveling with one-way tickets, had paid in cash, had listed a non-working phone number on the reservation or had checked luggage. They also appeared to pay particular attention to people headed to cities such as Los Angeles (which prosecutors described as “a well-known source city for marijuana and other types of narcotics,” Fresno (“known for large quantities of outdoor grown marijuana”) and other California cities.
Agents said Zane Young fit that profile when they approached him at Phoenix’s airport in 2015: An informant had told them that Young had bought a last-minute, one-way ticket from Orlando to Las Vegas, with a stop in Phoenix, according to a civil complaint filed in federal court there. And he appeared to have a record of having been arrested for a minor marijuana offense. They seized $36,000 from his bags.
Young’s lawyer, Thomas Baker, said in a court filing that the drug agency’s profile was “vague, ambiguous, overbroad, and can be manipulated to include just about anyone who flies on a commercial airline.”
The Justice Department agreed in May to return half the money, without explanation.
Exactly how often agents contact people based on their travel records is impossible to determine. Few cash seizures are challenged in court; those that aren’t leave no public record.
And the Justice Department’s Inspector General has complained that the DEA’s airport units often did not track the instances in which they question someone but did not make an arrest or seizure.
What the drug agency could not do was access the sea of data the government collects from airlines to spot potential terrorists. Airlines must provide basic information about all of their passengers to the Department of Homeland Security three days before a flight so that they can be checked against terrorist watch lists. That system is so tightly focused on detecting potential terrorists that the government typically will not use it even to spot wanted fugitives.
Nor were agents able to get information directly from the airlines. “They really did not want to be associated with subjecting their passengers to government scrutiny because of the privacy issues,” Weiss, the former DEA supervisor, said. "They discouraged their employees from assisting us."
'We want the cash'
Drug agents were on the lookout for Nina Haywood when she stepped off an American Airlines flight at John Wayne Airport in the Los Angeles suburbs two years ago.
They knew she was returning from a trip to Tulsa that had lasted less than 12 hours, according to court records. They knew she had checked a suitcase, and they had a drug dog sniff it as baggage handlers unloaded it from the airplane. A detective assigned to a DEA task force approached her while she was waiting at the baggage claim.
Haywood’s answers to their questions gave agents still more reason to be suspicious. When they asked why she had been in Tulsa, Haywood replied that she had been visiting her aunt in the hospital, but couldn’t remember the aunt’s last name. When they asked whether she had packed her own bag, Haywood answered that a different aunt had packed it for her, but she couldn’t remember that aunt’s name, either. They found $41,471 stuffed in her suitcase, stuffed in envelopes inside a toiletry bag and a pair of white tube socks, according to court records.
Haywood also gave agents permission to search her cellphone. On it, the Justice Department said, they found a text message from an acquaintance asking why she was going to Tulsa.
“Money baby money!!!!” she answered.
Haywood was never charged. She declined to comment.
A DEA group assigned to Los Angeles’ airports made more than 1,600 cash seizures over the past decade, totaling more than $52 million, according to records the Justice Department uses to track asset seizures. Only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an indication that it was related to a criminal indictment.
Such charges appear rare. Of the 87 cases USA TODAY identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime. One involved a woman who was already a target of a federal money-laundering investigation; another alleged courier was arrested a month later on an apparently unrelated drug charge.
In many cases, current and former agents said, it was not clear that the couriers had committed a crime for which they could be arrested — at least not one that prosecutors would be willing to pursue as the Justice Department shifts its focus away from minor drug offenses. Instead, Weiss and others said, agents investigated the couriers after they were released in the hopes of finding a toehold that would let them identify bigger trafficking organizations.
Many of the people from whom agents seized cash had records of minor drug arrests. And some were more significant targets.
Two years ago in Nashville, for example, agents intercepted a man prosecutors described in court filings as being a “top target” of a gun violence crackdown in Baltimore and a member of a drug crew known as LAX (also the shorthand for Los Angeles’ main airport). The man, Antroine Figueroa, was carrying $24,010 in cash.
Agents told him they thought he was on his way to buy cocaine.
Figueroa replied, “You can’t buy a kilo for $25,000,” according to court records.
The agents let him go without charges, but kept the money. Figueroa’s lawyer declined to comment on the case.
The DEA started monitoring airports in 1975. At the time, traffickers routinely used commercial flights to move large quantities off drugs both into and around the United States. But the airport security overhauls that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made that kind of smuggling far more difficult. Over time, three agents who worked at airports during that period said, the operation became increasingly focused on seizing the cash proceeds of drug sales that still dribbled through the airport in the backpacks and suitcases of low-level couriers.
Baer said the DEA’s airport groups — scattered from Los Angeles to Atlanta — do more than seize cash. In recent years, they have arrested drug trafficking rings that had infiltrated the airlines and used their badges to help carry large quantities of drugs past security checkpoints and onto commercial flights. A group assigned to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York seized 92 kilograms of cocaine and 27 kilograms of heroin since 2013.
Still, current and former agents said, when it came to intercepting individual passengers, the goal was usually to find cash.
“We want the cash. Good agents chase cash,” said George Hood, who supervised a drug task force assigned to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before he retired in 2007. “It was just easier to get the asset, and that’s where you make a dent in the criminal organization.”
Story courtesy USA TODAY. Contributing: Jessica Campisi in McLean, Va.